on 4 January 2018
Graham Swift opens “Waterland” with a quote from Dickens’ “Great Expectations”, “Ours was the marsh country, close by the river”. Dickens, however, was writing about the North Kent Marshes, whereas Swift’s novel is set in another part of the country, the Fens of East Anglia . The Fens were once a low-lying area of marshland, inhabited by few people other than fishermen and wildfowlers; today they are still low-lying but have mostly been drained and turned into productive agricultural land. It is not a conventionally picturesque area, but its very flatness and featurelessness give it a distinctive local character. Against this background, Swift uses a mixture of real and fictitious places; some of the places mentioned, such as Ely, are real, but others, such as the town of Gildsea (supposedly somewhere between Ely and King’s Lynn) in which much of the action takes place, are the author’s invention.
In some ways the novel falls within the tradition, dating back to George Eliot and Thomas Hardy, of English regional rural fiction. There are allusions to both Eliot and Hardy in the text; the plot has certain links to Eliot’s “The Mill on the Floss”, another book set beside a river flowing into the North Sea and in which a flood plays an important part. One of Swift’s characters, Dick Crick, shares a name with one from “Tess of the d’Urbervilles”. Just as Swift took inspiration from his predecessors, his book also seems to have inspired Peter Benson’s “The Levels”, another novel from the eighties set in a low-lying part of the country.
In other respects, however, this is far from being a traditional novel. (Indeed, it is less traditional than “The Levels”). It includes such Modernist devices as a non-linear narrative and an unreliable narrator- indeed, a narrator who cheerfully denies not only his own unreliability but also the possibility of narrative which is 100% reliable.
The events of the book (which are not presented in chronological order) can be divided into three categories. The first is the present of its main character Tom Crick, brother of the aforementioned Dick. In this present, set in the late seventies and early eighties, Tom is a middle-aged history teacher at a comprehensive school in Greenwich, South London. The second category is Tom’s own personal history, especially his boyhood and youth in the thirties and forties, when he was growing up as the son of a Fenland lock-keeper, and his courtship of his future wife Mary. The third is the history of Tom’s ancestors which is used to illustrate the wider history of the Fens. Swift pays particular attention to Tom’s mother’s family, the Atkinsons, originally farmers who rose to become a powerful brewing dynasty in the nineteenth century but whose fortunes declined in the twentieth. He also finds room for digressions on such subjects as the natural history of the eel, a creature which plays an important part in his narrative.
The major theme of the novel is the importance of history. The fact that Tom is a history teacher rather than, say, a science or maths teacher is not just an irrelevant detail; it is a major plot point. Parts of the book are taken up with Tom’s lengthy conversations with Price, one of his teenage pupils who cannot see the relevance of the subject to the present day. Price’s doubts are (perhaps surprisingly) shared by the school’s headmaster, a science specialist, who feels that studying the past will do nothing to prepare students for the modern world. Price also fears the End of History- not the End of History in the sense which was later to be popularised by Francis Fukuyama but in the sense of a coming nuclear holocaust which will, quite literally, bring history to an end. (This was a fear which was very real in the seventies and eighties; Price reminded me vividly of some of my own school contemporaries).
The significance of Greenwich as the setting for those parts of the story which take place outside the Fens is that it is the site of the Greenwich Meridian, which can be seen as marking the beginning, rather than the end, of time. This point seems to have been lost on the makers of the otherwise decent film adaptation who moved the Greenwich scenes to Pittsburgh, presumably on the assumption that this would make it more attractive to American audiences.
Tom’s answer to the doubts raised by Price and the headmaster is not that stock cliché about “learning the lessons of history”, meaning that one should study the past in order to avoid the mistakes made by previous generations in the conduct of political, diplomatic and military affairs. It is rather that there can be no better preparation for the modern world than the study of the past, because it is that very past which has brought the modern world into being and which continues to inform it. The philosophy of history presented here is an essentially cyclical, small-c conservative one; the past repeats itself, but any attempt to prevent it from doing so, or to remake it according to one’s own political or philosophical prejudices are doomed to failure. Although history informs the present, it can never be known in all its details and the historian can never be entirely free of personal bias, which is why I said that Tom denies the possibility of reliable narrative.
The plot of the novel is a complex one, including such matters as murder, incest, family rivalry, young love, abortion, mental illness and kidnapping. There is a large cast of characters, spread over several centuries of history. Yet despite this complexity Swift is able to make his novel hang together as a coherent whole, and does so brilliantly. One of the factors holding it together is the use of Tom- an essentially sympathetic figure, despite his unreliability- as narrator, but the main one is the all-pervading presence of the Fens, the “Waterland” of the title, throughout the book, even when the ostensible setting is in Greenwich. “Waterland” is one of the finest British novels of the eighties.